In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many small tenement apartments inhabited by European immigrants often doubled as workplaces and living spaces. There, men and women toiled away as contractors for larger corporations, churning out clothing, parts, and other products.
Wages were low and hours were long, but because they were immigrants and were trying to make their way in their new country, they accepted the work eagerly. These work-and-living spaces were often miserable, and they earned the nickname “sweatshops.”
While “some immigrants began working in small shops, eventually owning large clothing firms,” the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute notes, “others succumbed to disease, malnutrition, and exhaustion, and never found the path from tenement sweatshop to a better life.”
Labor laws passed in the 20th century sought to eliminate such working conditions, but they seem to be making a comeback in the 21st century, thanks to the out-sized and outrageous demands of the big tech giants.
The stress is ‘unworldly’
As reported by The Verge, Facebook is a particularly egregious offender, working contractors to the point of exhaustion and, in at least one case, death.
The news site related the story of Keith Utley, a veteran Coast Guard officer who landed a job as a moderator for Facebook after retiring from the service:
Utley worked the overnight shift at a Facebook content moderation site in Tampa, FL, operated by a professional services vendor named Cognizant. The 800 or so workers there face relentless pressure from their bosses to better enforce the social network’s community standards, which receive near-daily updates that leave its contractor workforce in a perpetual state of uncertainty. The Tampa site has routinely failed to meet the 98 percent “accuracy” target set by Facebook. In fact, with a score that has been hovering around 92, it is Facebook’s worst-performing site in North America.
The job was extremely stressful, The Verge noted, and it weighed very heavily on Utley, according to co-workers at the Tampa site.
“The stress they put on him — it’s unworldly,” one of Utley’s managers told The Verge. “I did a lot of coaching. I spent some time talking with him about things he was having issues seeing. And he was always worried about getting fired.”
During his March 9 shift, Utley slumped at his desk, alerting co-workers that something was wrong after he began sliding out of his chair. While two co-workers began CPR, a manager called for an ambulance. There was no automatic defibrillator in the building.
‘We are bodies in seats’
Because of the dim lighting around the building and its out-of-the-way location, paramedics had trouble finding the facility, arriving about 13 minutes after the first call. By the time they reached him, Utley was blue.
He was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital from a heart attack. And while further details about his overall health history were not available, The Verge reported, what is known is his age: He was 42 when he passed, and he led an extremely stressful — some say entirely too stressful — work life.
Worse, site leaders instructed managers not to discuss Utley’s disposition — that he had died — with one co-worker even claiming that “everyone at leadership” told workers “he’ll be okay.”
“I think they were worried about people quitting with the emotional impact it would have had,” the co-worker told The Verge.
Eventually, when Utley’s father came to the site to collect his son’s belongings, word spread that he had died there.
Since the 2016 election when Facebook came under intense scrutiny over its failure to prevent abuses on the platform, the company greatly expanded its moderator and safety workforce to about 30,000. About half are moderators and most of those are contractors that have been hired via large professional firms. (Related: Dear President Trump: If you do not end censorship by Big Tech, you will lose the election and thrust America into a violent civil war.)
The pay is lousy — contracted moderators make as little as $28,800 per year — and the hours are long and difficult (two 15-minute breaks and a half-hour for lunch during a shift). They also get nine minutes per day for “wellness” time if they begin to feel overwhelmed.
A modern-day tech sweatshop, in other words.
In addition, conditions at Facebook moderator locations aren’t much better. The Tampa site is isolated, and at another site in Phoenix, some employees were sent home recently after an infestation of bed bugs — the second this year — was discovered.
Facebook execs say those are not typical conditions or that the lives of employees are so negatively impacted. But The Verge noted it has received multiple accounts stating otherwise.
— Employees are regularly told how easily they can be replaced;
— Promised bonuses, career development, and regular scheduling have never materialized;
— Pot use at the Tampa location is very prevalent;
— Stress seems to be a job requirement.
“We were bodies in seats,” a former moderator told The Verge. “We were nothing to them — at all.”